Recent headlines have demonstrated unequivocally that Britons are complaining ever more loudly and increasingly more often and they are airing their complaints via social media, phone calls, emails and good old-fashioned letters. 

One example alone neatly illustrates the point - the Financial Ombudsman,  which investigates complaints on behalf of customers of financial institutions, and adjudicates on complex issues ranging from PPI mis-selling to endowments and pay day loans.

It recently revealed that in 2012/2013 it recorded a 92% increase in complaints, with 76% of complaints lodged against banks, which in many cases have failed to deal adequately with direct complaints by their own customers. 

The situation is particularly pronounced in financial services but similar stories of rising volumes of complaints are emerging from a raft of regulatory bodies and consumer rights group and relate to a range of sectors such as utilities, mobile phone companies and credit providers.
The result is a tsunami of complaints that shows little signs of abating as consumers are better-informed about their rights, more impatient about response times, and more likely to tell other people both privately and in a public forum if they have a poor experience of complaint or dispute resolution.

If you’re running or working in a complaints-handling team, you’ll know exactly the kind of empathetic and problem-solving skills it takes to deal with frustrated and emotional customers who may be at the end of their tether by the time they pick up the phone, having exhausted other avenues of help.

We’re in the throes of a busy summer of research activity which will include working with our partner Verint on a project called ‘Why Companies Need Customers to Complain’ which takes a different approach to the whole vexed issue of complaint handling, focusing on the benefits that can accrue both to organisations and their customers if the complaint process is seen as a valuable learning exercise. The results will be hugely valuable for all members regardless of their sector or ownership structure so make sure you take part in the member survey when it goes out so that we get the most detailed picture possible of what’s happening on this important topic.

We’ve already seen glimpses of a more enlightened approach paying dividends when learning outcomes are applied intelligently and in a systematic way. Recent member study tours provided great learning opportunities, including a visit to the BBC customer service operation in Belfast where Capita handles a vast array of complaints and other enquiries on behalf of the Corporation. MacMillan Cancer Support also demonstrated prowess in using complaints about particularly sensitive and emotional issues to find ways to improve the services offered to support people suffering from cancer and their families.

We’re lining up a series of expert interviews for inTouch too, where diverse business leaders will shed more light on the subject - including an upcoming one-on-one with Sony Europe’s Head of Customer Centricity, Derek Allison. Derek raised eyebrows by organising ‘speed-dating’ sessions to allow Sony staff to engage with disgruntled customers who had a low Net Promoter Score. However his innovative strategy has proved a major success for all parties and helped Sony turn detractors into brand fans or ambassadors. We’ll bring you full details soon.

In the middle of strategic discussions on complaint handling we must not lose sight of the unsung heroes in contact centres who perform this difficult role day in and day out, keeping calm under pressure and delivering service with a smile. Perhaps at this year’s Excellence Awards we should give an extra round of applause to the business that wins this category.